Editorial: Televised meetings don't show everything

The Virginia Gazette

8:26 PM EDT, August 5, 2014


If you watch James City County's Board of Supervisors meetings on your television or computer, what you see isn't everything the supervisors get.

Because of a recent policy change, visuals that speakers place on an overhead projector can only be seen by the supervisors and anyone physically in the room. Everyone else sees only the speaker.

Assistant county administrator Adam Kinsman confirmed the change, explaining that county officials don't know what materials public speakers are apt to show, and prefer to air on the side of caution.

Without being specific, Kinsman said the tipping point came when a speaker displayed images of children and used copyrighted material. "The attorney in me said, 'What are we getting into?'" he noted.

What we're getting into, though unintended, is censorship.

Whatever speakers say or show to the supervisors during a meeting is part of the public record. That includes presentations by applicants.

Kinsman's copyright infringement argument falls short. The website for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is a rich resource for outcomes and court rulings relevant to the press. Among them is a 2012 case in which a federal court rejected a copyright infringement suit against Bloomberg L.P., which published a private conference call among senior executives from Swatch Group Management Services. The court found that Bloomberg was protected from liability by fair use doctrine.

It applies to James City in that Bloomberg's use, while commercial, also "served an important public interest."

As for copyright issues among local government, I turned up just one case of a jurisdiction being sued for copyright infringement. Twenty-five years ago, San Jose, Calif. sued Paris, France, claiming the Eiffel Tower was built off the concept for the San Jose Electric Light Tower. It was more of a circus than a true trial. And San Jose lost.

Part of the problem in James City is that speaker presentations are part of neither the public nor historical record.

The morning after the July 22 supervisors meeting, I logged on to the online broadcast of the meeting, hoping to view a document displayed during one of the public comment periods. The video showed the speaker placing the document on the projector, but the camera shot stayed on the speaker.

I then contacted county spokeswoman Jody Puckett to find out if was possible to view a specific camera feed. It's not. Only the camera angles used in the broadcast are recorded for posterity.

For people unaccustomed to speaking before a governing body, the task can seem daunting. The county owes it to them to preserve their remarks for the public record. Good ideas often come from citizens who can point out obvious solutions to problems that bureaucrats may overlook.

This is a problem worth fixing, and easy to accomplish.

Speakers who have an audiovisual presentation should be required to provide a copy of the material that will become part of the meeting minutes. If they fail to bring a copy, have a copier handy to accomplish the task.

Kinsman's worries about children and copyrights can also be assuaged.

While a school must take measures to protect the identity of children, particularly those in difficult custody or foster situations, a child photographed in a public setting is a different matter. It's doubtful the county would be exposed legally.

The same would likely apply to copyrighted material.

Scott Hampton, an attorney and principal in Hampton IP & Economic Consultants, points out the limitations of copyrights on his website. He cites fair use, "which allows limited use of copyrighted works without permission for commentary, criticism, new reporting, research, teaching, library archiving, and scholarship."

Archiving, which is what James City should be doing unedited on its website, seems to apply here.